Various Artists

Beethoven: Folksong Settings

(CD - Deutsche Grammophon #477 5128)

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Like those of his predecessor Franz Josef Haydn, the British folk song settings of Ludwig van Beethoven are an underappreciated corner of his output. Commissioned by Scotsman George Thomson for publication as parlor music, they present a simple, rustic face that hides a deceptively clever and often technically demanding musical texture. Indeed, several settings had to be re-written, since Thomson determined they would not appeal to amateur musicians in their original forms. In most cases, Thomson sent Beethoven only the tunes to be set, and not their texts, so the resulting works can be viewed as purely musical conceptions; however, this does nothing to undermine their expressive qualities, since the very essence of folk song is melody. Beethoven's own interest in the project can be inferred not only from the quality of his musical submissions, but also from his willingness to collect tunes from continental Europe (Germany, Poland, Spain) at Thomson's request later in their collaboration. Setting these tunes was clearly not odious to the composer, even if the project was mercenary in nature. Deutsche Grammophon's complete edition of the Beethoven folk song settings was recorded in 1996-1997, and is exemplary in every way. One could not hope for a better collection of these songs. The list of performers reads like a "who's who" of British singing: Felicity Lott, Ann Murray, Thomas Allen, John Mark Ainsley, Sarah Walker, Christopher Maltman, and other less well-known performers all lend their voices to this collection, along with the spectacular Malcolm Martineau at the piano, violinists Marieke Blankenstijn, Elizabeth Layton, and Krysia Osostowicz, and cellist Ursula Smith. The music making is exquisite, the singing mostly terrific, and the overall impression of the songs themselves extremely positive. Only Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's recordings from the 1970s can rival these for musical polish and sophistication, but those were all recorded in German translation and only account for a small portion of the whole output.

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